NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, October 16, 2020

The Paradox of Experiential Therapy: Going Slower Brings Faster and Deeper Change

The title of this article might sound like a contradiction, so you might ask: How can slowing down in experiential therapy brings about faster and deeper change?  I'll discuss why this is true in this article.  In prior articles, I've discussed what experiential therapy is and why it's more effective than regular talk therapy (see my articles: Getting to the Core of Your Problems With Experiential Therapy and Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Regular Talk Therapy to Overcome Trauma).  

Experiential Therapy: Going Slower Brings Faster and Deeper Change

What Does "Slowing Down" Mean in Experiential Therapy?
As I've mentioned in prior articles, whereas regular talk therapy is a top down process, experiential therapy includes both top down and bottom up processing (see my article: What's the Difference Between Top Down and Bottom Up Therapy?).

In regular talk therapy you're usually talking about the problem as opposed to experiencing it in an embodied way that is much more than just talking about it.  As an embodied experience, you're integrating the mind-body connection (see my article: The Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Why Does Slowing Down Help You to Sense the Mind-Body Connection in Therapy?
Our bodies hold the memories and imprint of our experiences, including both conscious and unconscious experiences.

Based on research and clinical experience, skilled psychotherapists now know that change happens on an emotional level--not just on an intellectual level.  Regular talk therapy usually remains on an intellectual level. 

This is why the body needs to be included along with the mind in the therapeutic process.  Without the body, the therapeutic process is usually just an intellectual process, and while intellectual insight is important, it often doesn't bring change at the root of the problem.

When you can connect to what's happening to you on an embodied emotional way, you and your therapist can work deeper and change occurs faster (for illustration of how this works, read the clinical vignette below).

Most experiential therapists are aware that each client has a different level of tolerance when it comes to working deeper, so they will help clients to modulate the experience so it remains within a manageable level (see my article: Expanding Your Window of Tolerance.)  

Aside from the therapist being attuned to what's happening to the client in session and between sessions, the therapist also relies on feedback from the client (see my article: The Healing Potential of the Therapist's Empathic Attunement and The Creation of the Holding Environment in Therapy).

What is Experiential Therapy?
Experiential therapy includes many different types of mind-body oriented therapy, including Somatic ExperiencingEMDR therapy (Eye Movement Densensitization and Reprocessing), AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy), clinical hypnosis (also known as hypnotherapy) and Ego States work (also known as Internal Family Systems and Parts work).

Based on the individual client's needs, the various modalities of experiential therapy mentioned above can include:
  • Learning to regulate emotions, thoughts and physical reactions with the help of the therapist
  • An internal somatic focus and felt sense of the connection between the mind and body
  • Working with here-and-now experiences
  • Working with trauma memories to rework these memories so they are no longer traumatizing
  • Calming, breathing and grounding techniques
  • With with various aspects of self, also known as parts
  • Having imagined dialogues in the therapy session (also known as role play, Gestalt chair work or in AEDP as Portrayals)
  • Overcoming various emotional blocks that create obstacles to healing
Each of the above experiential modalities mentioned above is different but, as previously mentioned, they all have in common that they are mind-body oriented.  Some people respond better to one modality than another.  So, it's helpful for the experiential therapist to have many different ways of working.

In some cases, while doing one type of therapy, the therapist might need to temporarily switch to or integrate another modality.  

For instance, if an experiential therapist is doing EMDR therapy with a client and the they come up against an emotional block in the therapy, the therapist might need to work with a particular aspect of the client (often referred to as a "part") to clear the block before resuming EMDR (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Skilled experiential therapists anticipate emotional blocks and they're ready to deal with them as they occur.  The block might be a part of the client that feels "I don't deserve to feel better" or "I'm unlovable." 

Until this block is cleared, it will continue to be an obstacle in the work, which is why it's so important to address the block as a "part" and not the whole of the client. After all the client wouldn't be coming to therapy if s/he didn't have a much larger part of him or herself that wanted to heal.  

Anticipating emotional blocks and being aware that the client has many different aspects of him or herself helps the experiential therapist not to get caught in the trap of seeing emotional blocks as "resistance," which isn't helpful to the therapy (see my article: Psychotherapists Need to Stop Labeling Emotional Blocks as "Resistance" and Stigmatizing Clients By Calling Them "Help Rejecting").

How Does An Experiential Therapist Help You to Slow Down in Experiential Therapy?
In experiential therapy slowing down means you and your therapist are taking the time to notice not only what you're thinking but also the emotions that you're experiencing in the body.  If you've never done this before or you're not attuned to what's going on in your body, an experiential therapist can help you to learn how to do it.

Everyone is different in terms of their levels of awareness of the mind-body connection.  Some people feel little or no connection to their feelings and where they're experiencing them in their body.  

Other people might have a vague awareness or they only know when they're experiencing certain emotions that don't make them feel emotionally vulnerable (e.g, they might be aware of when they're angry but not when they're sad).

Slowing down and sensing into your body usually involves tuning into the emotions you feel somewhere between your throat and your gut.  Sometimes anxiety or stress might be felt in the shoulders or back (physical tension or aches) and someone who is unaware of the emotional connection might only think of the experience as physical.

It takes practice to connect emotions and sensations in the body. I often suggest to clients that it's similar to how they might sense into their throat if they're trying to figure out if they have a sore throat in the morning or if their throat is just dry.  This is an example from a book called The Power of Focusing by Anne Wiser Cornell, which I often recommend to clients as a way to start learning to be attuned to emotions in the body.

A Clinical Example: How Slowing Down in Experiential Therapy Brings Faster and Deeper Change:
The following clinical vignette is a fictional scenario that is representative of what many clients experience in experiential therapy:

Before working with an experiential therapist, Ted attended talk therapy with several therapists over a period of 10 years. He learned a lot about how his childhood trauma affected his adult relationships, including his romantic relationships as well as his work-related relationships.  

Although he appreciated the insight he developed and being able to make the connections to his past, his problems didn't change.  He continued to have the same problems.

A friend, who successfully worked through his problems in experiential therapy, recommended that Ted contact an experiential therapist, so he did.  During the initial consultation, Ted felt comfortable with the therapist so he decided to work with her on a once-a-week basis.

Ted was accustomed to talking about himself from his previous talk therapy sessions.  When he talked about his childhood trauma, he could list all the big traumatic experiences without a problem.  But when his therapist asked him how it felt to talk to her about it, Ted realized that he felt her attunement to him in a way he never felt before with other therapists and this new experience moved him.  He could tell that she really wanted to know what it was like for him.

He also realized that in his previous therapies he almost never talked about the good times in his childhood, but in his current therapy his therapist was not only encouraging him to remember the good times, she was helping him to deepen his positive experiences of those times so he could use those memories as positive resources in their work together (see my article: Developing Internal Resources and Coping Skills)

His therapist helped Ted to have a felt sense of those experiences by noticing what emotions these memories brought up and where he felt these emotions in his body.  She explained to Ted that by slowing down to notice his emotions and where he felt them in the body, he would deepen his experience, which would accelerate the work.  She also told him that this acceleration would only go as fast as it felt safe for him and that he was in charge of this process at all times.  This was also a completely new experience for Ted.  

By continuing to slow down and notice his emotions and bodily experiences, Ted realized that he had glossed over many of experiences in his prior therapies.  In his current therapy he could feel a shift in him each time he took the time to slow down and notice the felt sense of his experience.  

Over time, Ted felt transformed by his work with his experiential therapist in a way he had never felt before in regular talk therapy.

Getting Help in Therapy
The experience of many clients who have attended talk therapy has been that they develop insight into their problems but their problems don't change.  

The advantage of experiential therapy is that it works on both a top down (intellectual) and bottom up (body) level so it integrates the mind-body connection.  

Since change occurs with the integration of mind and body, experiential therapy brings about meaningful transformation.

If you haven't been able to make the kinds of lasting changes that you desire, you could benefit from working with an experiential therapist.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and EFT therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Therapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.